At the Melbourne Cricket Ground on Monday, Australia’s premier Test match batsman Steve Smith came to the crease in the 18th over with the team’s score being 42. Unfortunately for him, he was not quite able to find an answer to the problems he is facing against the Indian bowling attack.
Here’s the thing about Steve Smith. He is many things, as a batsman. He is unorthodox. He is inventive. He is unconventional. Some might say he is not the most pleasing, but no can deny the fact that he is mighty effective.
However, indecisiveness at the batting crease is not a trait you will associate with Steve Smith, the Test batsman. And, after being dismissed for a duck for the first time in his career in the first innings of a Test match, he could follow-up with only a 30-ball 8.
For only the second time in his career, Smith has been dismissed thrice in a row for single-digit scores: 1, 1*, 0 and 8 are his numbers so far in the Border-Gavaskar Trophy. He spent about an hour in the middle on day three and he barely looked comfortable during that time as Jasprit Bumrah and Ashwin Ravichandran went about their business with remarkable effectiveness.
Simply put, Australia’s batting problems in this series stem from their main man not being able to express himself and India’s bowling plans working a treat.
Brilliant Test cricket
He tried hard, though. You could see Smith was keen from the moment he got to the middle. Having spent a good chunk of the Indian innings doing shadow batting, he was at it again whenever he thought he needed to refocus. It was evident he is trying to battle through this lean phase (by his ridiculous high standards).
But coming at him from both ends were two bowlers who were operating at a world-class level. After Ashwin and Mohammed Siraj had started off in tandem against Smith, Ajinkya Rahane brought on Bumrah just before tea and a phase of remarkable Test cricket began.
From his end, Ashwin did not given an inch to Smith but the Australian ace was dealing with him better than he had been this series. The leg slip was in place, while the line and length kept varying to cause doubt in Smith’s mind on whether he should press forward or stay in the crease and wait for the ball to turn.
The 10th ball of his innings, Smith made the most decisive move yet, by dancing down the track with aggression. But Ashwin had shortened the length, the ball turned and zipped through off the inside edge on to Smith’s back-pad.
He wanted to break free, but he wasn’t being allowed to.
Now, with Bumrah and Ashwin building the pressure together, Smith’s focus soon turned towards entering the dressing room unbeaten during the tea interval. The last over of the session, Smith did not waste a single minute trying to play Ashwin out, he got himself quickly to the non-striker’s end and let Matthew Wade deal with the off-spinner. It was a moment that Ashwin would have been secretly pleased with, because it personified the respect with which he was being treated.
And then, after tea, Rahane kept his two best bowlers operating in tandem.
For Bumrah, this series was the first time he was up against Smith. Their battle in Adelaide was brief and uneventful but here, the Indian pacer started to work Smith over. The line was largely middle and off-stump, and with fielders close in on the leg side, Smith was unable to just walk across and whip it behind square. There were not many full deliveries to drive either. Bumrah kept working the angle.
Eventually, in the 33rd over, it was Bumrah’s angle that did the trick. Smith had moved across like he tends to, but where he usually manages to get a good chunk of the ball, he missed this one. The ball clipped the pads, and touched the bail gently to topple it... so much so that neither Smith nor Bumrah immediately knew what had happened.
Over by over, when Bumrah and Ashwin bowled to Smith and Wade:
24th: 2 runs
25th: 2 runs
26th: No run
27th: 4 runs
28th: 1 run
29th: 1 run
30th: 1 run
31st: No run
32nd: 4 runs
32.2: Smith bowled by Bumrah
Of course, the result of the match is by no means a foregone conclusion after a dramatic third day with plenty of twists and turns and talking points. But the highlight of it had to be this battle between India’s two best bowlers and Australia’s best batsman.
India are ahead in this game, without a doubt, but Wade has called on his team’s lower order to score 100 or so more at least, because then a tight battle will be on the cards.
With Smith falling cheaply again, however, India were able to keep the Australian top-order in check at the MCG once again. The celebrations that followed by the Indians when he started walking back slowly to the dressing room, filled with shakes of the head, said a story. They knew the importance of his wicket.
He may have found his hands ahead of the ODI series, and it showed with back-to-back 62-ball centuries. But during the Test matches, he is searching for the balance, the rhythm, and the decisiveness that makes him the eminent long-format batsman of his generation. There are now two more matches to go, and if Smith starts problem-solving, a few more fascinating battles await.